Thursday, December 20, 2018

September 22, 1941: Defense of Nickel Mines

Monday 22 September 1941

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland before or during World War II.
Eastern Front: Throughout the early part of World War II, when he still has the initiative, Adolf Hitler issues a string of commands that are only seen by a carefully chosen handful of top generals (with top secrecy, including numbered copies). On 22 September 1941, Hitler issues Führer Directive 36, which is devoted to the northernmost areas of the Eastern Front. This directive offers great insight into the critical importance that economic factors play in military operations during World War II.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
A view of the smelting plant at the Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland before or during World War II.
Führer Directive 36 is not particularly well known, but there are several interesting aspects to it. It begins off with an unusual tone, one that admits failure at a time when everything supposedly is going well for the Wehrmacht:
Owing to unusual difficulties of the terrain, defective lines of communications, and the continual arrival of Russian reinforcements in Karelia and Lapland, the weak forces of Army High Command Norway and 5th Air Fleet have not so far succeeded, in spite of immense efforts and the bravest actions, in reaching the Murmansk railway. The interruption by the enemy of our sea communications along the Arctic coast has still further reduced the likelihood that the Mountain Corps will reach Murmansk this year.
When one reads this, it is clear that Hitler at least is being honest about the desultory state of operations in northern Norway, an area usually overlooked in histories of the war. After a quick initial advance, the Wehrmacht stopped completely in northern Norway instead of advancing further to cut off Allied access to the ports at the end of the Murmansk railway line.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
The Finnish coast near Petsamo around the time of World War II (Arktikum Science Center).
When many students of World War II think of northern Norway, they quickly see its importance to the war as being its proximity to the Allied convoys bringing supplies to the Soviets at Murmansk. However, Hitler takes a completely different view of the region's importance which offers some insight into how he views the overall strategy. As Hitler's directive puts it:
The importance of this area lies in the nickel mines which are vital for the German war effort. The enemy realizes this importance. It is likely that the English will deploy strong air forces around Murmansk and Kandalaksha, and may perhaps even commit Canadian or Norwegian troops there, and that they will send as much war material as possible to Murmansk. We must expect air attacks, even in winter, against the nickel mines and the homes of the miners. Our own efforts must correspond with the greatness of this danger.
As so often during World War II, Hitler is right about an issue, but for the completely wrong reasons. Another example of this includes Hitler's decision never again to use airborne forces for major operations due to the heavy losses at Crete - which, unknown to Hitler, were due to the Allies reading his military codes, not some inherent defect in that form of warfare as he supposed.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
RAF Hawker Hurricane operating at Vaenga in Northern Russia. Here, the RAF pilots are teaching Soviet pilots how to fly the aircraft.
In the case of Northern Norway, the British do, in fact, send some troops to the area, one of the very few instances of direct cooperation between British and Soviet forces during the war. RAF Squadron Nos. 134 and 151 operate out of the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk. However, their presence there has nothing to do with the Kolosjoki nickel mines in Petsamo. Instead, the RAF pilots are there simply to protect the Allied convoys coming from the British Isles to Murmansk. It's not clear that the British gave even the slightest thought to the nickel deposits there.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
"Hawker Hurricane Mark IIBs of No. 134 Squadron RAF, scramble from their dispersals in the snow at Vaenga." (© IWM (CR 54)).
Given that Hitler doesn't see Murmansk as being of particular importance since it doesn't have anything to do with German control of the nickel deposits near Petsamo, it's not surprising to see him order in the directive:
The offensive of the Mountain Corps towards Murmansk is to be halted for the time being, and the northern flank will advance only so far as is required to improve the position and to mislead the enemy.
However, almost as an afterthought, Hitler does order the Navy in an offhand fashion to "attack enemy supplies moving to Murmansk even in Winter." The Luftwaffe also is ordered to remain active throughout the winter, but the emphasis is not on the Allied convoys - instead, it is to "give effective support to the attack on Kandalakssha." As with the navy, the directive mentions after this that the air force is to "make continuous attacks on the enemy's shipping and rear communications." However, no particular importance is placed on the Allied convoys already starting to run right under the German troops' noses next to Northern Norway.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
An RAF Hawker Hurricane Mk IIB fighter photographed with Russian sentries near Murmansk, October 1941.
Taken as a whole, Führer Directive 36 is full of misunderstandings and misappreciations. The nickel may be important to the German war machine, but the Allies couldn't care less about it at this point. Instead, they are only worried about the all-important convoys bringing vital equipment and supplies to the northern Soviet ports. The result is that the Germans defend areas that aren't really threatened, while they miss the opportunity to hit the Allies at a true weak spot. Partly this has to do with Hitler's obsession with "economic factors," as he likes to call them.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
Tanks manufactured in Britain leaving the factory. They are destined for Russia to serve at Leningrad and Odessa. Photo was taken 22 September 1941.
Another, more basic, reason for this error is that Hitler is simply more comfortable with land operations and gives little thought to what is going on just offshore. The Allies, on the other hand, don't give much thought at this time (or really later, either) to German vulnerabilities on land. It is a classic example of two opposing forces fighting completely different battles in the same area, both accomplishing their objectives in part because the other side is looking in a completely different direction.

Kolosjoki nickel mine in Petsamo, Finland 22 September 1941
Life magazine, Brazilian dancer Eros Volusia, 22 September 1941.

September 1941

September 1, 1941: Two Years In
September 2, 1941: Germans Pushed Back at Yelnya
September 3, 1941: FDR Refuses to Meet with Japanese
September 4, 1941: Hitler Furious at Guderian
September 5, 1941: Germans Evacuate Yelnya
September 6, 1941: Japan Prepares for War
September 7, 1941: Hitler Orders Drive on Moscow
September 8, 1941: Leningrad Cut Off
September 9, 1941: Germans Attack Leningrad
September 10, 1941: Guderian Busts Loose
September 11, 1941: Convoy SC-42 Destruction
September 12, 1941: Starve Leningrad!
September 13, 1941: Zhukov at Leningrad
September 14, 1941: Germany's Growing Casualties
September 15, 1941: Sorge Warns Stalin Again
September 16, 1941: Soviets Encircled at Kiev
September 17, 1941: Iran Conquest Completed
September 18, 1941: Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in Action
September 19, 1941: Germans Take Kiev
September 20, 1941: Death at Kiev
September 21, 1941: Raging Soviet Paranoia
September 22, 1941: Defense of Nickel Mines
September 23, 1941: Air Attacks on Leningrad
September 24, 1941: Japanese Spying Intensifies
September 25, 1941: Manstein at the Crimea
September 26, 1941: Kiev Pocket Eliminated
September 27, 1941: Massacre at Eišiškės
September 28, 1941: Ted Williams Hits .400
September 29, 1941: Babi Yar Massacre
September 30, 1941: Operation Typhoon Begins


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